A promising pilgrimage

WILLIAM KENNY / TIMES PHOTO

Upon his Jan. 4 swearing-in as mayor, Jim Kenney promised himself that he’d visit at least one Philadelphia public school every week.

His motivation was not to draw public attention to schools’ failings. On the contrary, he wants to draw personal inspiration from the city’s bright young personalities and the adults who educate them.

Kenney chose Bustleton’s Anne Frank Elementary to make his first school pilgrimage last Thursday. It was his first public appearance in the Northeast as mayor. It also coincided with the School District of Philadelphia’s “Leading the Way” awards ceremony, recognizing the top-performing public and charter schools in the city.

Three Northeast schools were among 18 that garnered honors, including Anne Frank as one of four “best of the best,” said Superintendent William Hite. Anne Frank was the top-performing elementary school for the 2014–15 school year, joining Penn Alexander School for the K-8 level, Julia A. Masterman School for the middle school level and Central High School among high schools.

Rhawnhurst Elementary and Universal Creighton Charter of Crescentville were among 14 schools identified as “peer leaders,” designating their high performance among schools with similar student populations.

“To be in the company of these children and these teachers and principals makes you understand how important your job is and how rewarding it can be when we’re successful in providing the resources we need to make every school like Anne Frank,” Kenney said to an audience of hundreds in the school auditorium.

The dignitaries on hand included the mayor; the superintendent; Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney; Pennsylvania Department of Education officials; City Council members Allan Domb, Helen Gym and Al Taubenberger; state Reps. Ed Neilson and Stephen Kinsey; and state Sen. Christine Tartaglione.

Anne Frank and Rhawnhurst schools are both in Neilson’s 174th legislative district.

“It just shows that all the fighting we do up in Harrisburg and in City Council during my tenure there, fighting for public education is worth it,” Neilson said. “We have good schools. We have other good schools in our district and I’m surprised they weren’t on the list as well, but I’m sure they will be next year.”

The award winners were selected through a comprehensive evaluation process created by the school district three years ago and known as the School Progress Report (SPR). It takes into account student academic achievement and growth, school climate, attendance and, for high schools, college- and career-readiness. In contrast to the state’s School Performance Profiles, SPR places more emphasis on overall progress rather than standardized test results, although test results are a component of SPR.

“As the name suggests, this gives critical progress information for district and charter schools throughout the city, focusing on student growth, achievement, school climate and, for all high schools, college and career indicator,” Hite said.

“I’m encouraged by the success of several schools and the hard work of others to improve performance. However, the results also show that nearly 80 percent of the schools, both district and charter, fall into the lowest performance tiers. That means we have a lot of work to do. The results further support the need for continued investment and focus on early literacy and preparation for college and career.”

Anne Frank was named the top performer in its grade classification for the third consecutive year. With 1,250 students, it’s the largest K to 5 school in Pennsylvania, according to Principal Mickey Komins. It’s also one of the most diverse with students from 40 different countries and about the same number of different languages spoken, the principal added.

“It works. There is no majority at Anne Frank and that’s a strength,” Komins said. “I always say we have the best students in the city, the best parents, the best teachers. There’s always an expectation of being at the top and learning new things. We want to be ahead of the game, not behind and playing catch-up.”

Karen Howell-Toomer, principal at Rhawnhurst, leads an incentive-based program where students and teachers get rewarded for achievement.

“We make sure the programs that are purchased for our school are implemented well and that we have highly effective teachers that can teach the curriculum to the students,” Howell-Toomer said.

In 2014–15, student math and reading achievement improved, while climate and attendance were strengths. Student discipline figures into climate, while attendance includes both students and teachers.

“Every day I announce the attendance and I pump up the classes that have 100 percent. At the end of the month, they get a banner and a pizza party with popcorn and a movie,” Howell-Toomer said. “I give incentives to teachers as well. If you have perfect attendance for the month, you’re entered into a drawing for gift cards. … With climate, the teachers have really good classroom management. We have a class-wide system where the students know if they have (too many) infractions.”

Attendance and goal-setting is also the strategy at Universal Creighton, one of seven charter schools to earn peer leader distinction. Like Anne Frank, it’s a diverse school with 40 percent African-American, 30 percent Hispanic-American and 20 percent Asian-American students.

“We’re working hard to ensure that our scholars are reading on grade level by third grade,” said Principal Wendy Baldwin. “We’re making sure that our scholars are engaged throughout the presentation of the lessons. And we’re assessing both formative and summative to keep track of their overall progress.” ••

A+ for Anne Frank Elementary: Mayor Jim Kenney made his first public appearance in the Northeast as mayor last week, visiting Anne Frank Elementary, which was the top-performing elementary school for the 2014–15 school year. WILLIAM KENNY / TIMES PHOTO